The Other Side, by Jacqueline Woodson, is a magnificent picture book about a black girl, a white girl, and a fence.

When I read it, I found myself thinking of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.”

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The Other Side, according to the publisher, is intended for children ages 5 to 8. But this book really isn’t just for children. There is so much depth and richness to it that readers of different ages will find different things in it. People of different ages and different life experiences will enjoy it for different reasons.

The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.

There’s a fence that stretches through the town where Annie and Clover live. There are no gaps in this fence. No space for anyone to pass through.

Not yet, anyway. Not this spring.

The girls’ mothers have told them never to cross the fence. It isn’t safe. And Annie doesn’t cross the fence. But day after day, Clover sees her near it. She sits on it. She watches. She listens. She waits.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.

I think some children, particularly the youngest, are likely to accept what the mothers say. Rather than wondering why it’s not safe to cross the fence, they may wonder why Clover’s friends won’t let Annie join them for jump rope.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:

Clover wants to know why the fence is there at all. “Because that’s the way things have always been,” her mother tells her.

There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.

Clover sees Annie on rainy days, splashing in puddles on the other side of the fence. Clover feels the pull of it, the joy of dancing in puddles.

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.

And one day, Annie asks Clover to join her on top of the fence. They talk about what their mothers have said, and they agree that no one ever told them not to sit on top of the fence.

Annie, sitting on top of the fence, reaches out to Clover. the girls clasp hands.

Clover and Annie

Clover expects her mother to tell her to get down, but she doesn’t. Clover and Annie spend day after
sun-drenched day sitting on the fence, watching Clover’s friends play.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

E.B. Lewis’s watercolor paintings are beautiful and evocative, perfect complements to Woodson’s strong and hopeful story. The illustrations convey much that isn’t in the words of the story. The year, for example: When Clover’s mom hangs laundry on the clothesline, she wears a dress. When Annie and Clover pass each other in town, the girls and their mothers wear dresses and hats and white gloves, and the girls wear shiny black shoes and white anklet socks. When they play outside, all of the girls wear dresses.

So the story is in the past, but not the distant past. The 1950s, perhaps the early 1960s.

The doll in the arm chair in Clover’s comfortable living room looks suspiciously like a Mrs. Beasley doll. Those didn’t come out until 1967, but everything else in the story comes from a slightly earlier time.

Clover’s home is full of books and toys. There’s a shelf of porcelain knick knacks, and botanical prints on the wall. It’s a middle class home.

As I imagine Annie’s home must be, on the other side of the fence.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

“Someday somebody’s going to come along and knock this old fence down,” Annie said.

And I nodded. “Yeah,” I said. “Someday.”

Read More

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Charlotte Riggle, author of Catherine's Pascha and The Saint Nicholas Day Snow
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